The long struggle of a breed apart: Stateless throughout much of modern
history, the Kurdish people continue to defend their civilisation - as they have
for more than 8,000 years, says Harvey Morris
Financial Times (London)
By HARVEY MORRIS
April 19, 2003, Saturday London Edition 1
In 401BC, as Xenephon and his 10,000 Greek mercenaries made their epic retreat
from Persia across the Zagros range towards the Black Sea, they passed through
the territory of the Kardoukhoi. "These people," he later wrote, "lived in the
mountains and were very warlike and not subject to the Persian king. Indeed, a
royal army of 120,000 once invaded their country and not a man of them
Today's Kurdish inhabitants of the mountainous borderlands of Turkey, Iran, Iraq
and Syria have lost none of their ancient forefathers' belligerent tenacity in
defending a unique and many-layered civilisation that has evolved there over
The worse the oppression, it seems, the greater their determination not to
succumb. A wizened former peshmerga, watching US bombers circle over the
northern front, explained that he first took up arms against the Iraqi regime
after Saddam Hussein's thugs ripped out all his teeth. "This isn't real
fighting," he said, gazing up at the B-52s. "We should be fighting them on the
In spite of their readiness to take up arms against outsiders, the Kurds usually
intrude into the world's consciousness only rarely and normally as victims - of
nerve gas attacks in Iraq, torture and cultural annihilation in Turkey or
political repression in Syria and Iran. They are a nation, however, that refuses
to give up in the face of the long odds that it has faced over the centuries.
With a population of at least 25m, Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in
the Middle East after Arabs, Persians and Turks and, on present demographic
trends, are on the way to overtaking the latter for third place.
Yet the Kurds have no state of their own and no place in a modern political
history of the region written by those who have ruled over them. In the Arabo-centric
and Turko-centric modern history of the Middle East, the Kurds have been
virtually written off as the colourfully folkloric, but culturally and
politically irrelevant remnant of a primitive tribal era.
There was a distinctive Kurdish civilisation in the mountains that stretch from
eastern Anatolia almost to the Gulf before the rise of the Turkish, Arab and
Persian empires. The Babylonians referred to them as the Guti, while for the
Jews of the biblical era they were the Qarduim.
Their modern name was firmly established by the third century AD when the
Persian king, Ardeshir, founded the Sassanid dynasty. Among the rivals he had to
subdue was Kurdan Shahi Madrig Madrig, King of the Kurds.
Modern Kurdish nationalists enthusiastically focus on the Kurds' European
origins and on one branch of their complex ethnic family tree - the ancient
Medes. The Medes both competed and co-operated with their fellow Indo-Europeans,
the Persians, for imperial supremacy but lost their bid for domination in an
ancient palace coup.
The authors of the International Kurdish Journal take a more sober, scientific
view. "Genetically, Kurds are the descendants of all those who ever came to
settle in Kurdistan. A people such as the Guti, Kurti, Mede, Mard, Kardoukhoi,
Gordyene, Adianbene, Zila and Khaldi signify not the ancestor of the Kurds but
only an ancestor."
The language of the Kurds is Indo-European, linked most closely to Persian and,
more remotely, to Sanskrit and the languages of modern Europe.
The Kurdish dialects are a legacy of the Indo-European invasions that began
around 2000BC with the arrival of tribes such as the Mittani, whose name still
survives in the Mattini clan of south-eastern Turkey. Later came Medes,
Scythians, Sarmatians and Sagarthians, moving south from lands as far away as
The new arrivals established themselves as a tribal aristocracy that ruled over
the more advanced Hurrian civilisation that spoke a language related to modern
Chechen and other languages of the Caucasus. The Hurrians had established a
network of city states and a homogenous culture in a territory that coincides
almost exactly with the borders of modern Kurdistan.
For only one brief year in modern history did the Kurds have a state of their
own, the 1946-47 Soviet-sponsored Republic of Mahabad, which they dreamed would
be the kernel of a pan-Kurdish state but was snuffed out by the powers that
They have since failed to insert the idea of their distinct identity into the
international consciousness as have, say, the Palestinians. "They don't speak
enough about the Kurds," said Abdul Rahman Qassemlou, the Iranian Kurdish leader
assassinated by agents of Tehran in 1989, "because we have never taken hostages,
never hijacked a plane. But I am proud of this."
It was a noble sentiment that nevertheless failed to tell the whole story. It
may be true that the Kurds have been friendless for most of their history, but
they have also been their own worst enemies. They have allowed themselves to be
used as the cat's-paws of competing regional states, often fighting each other
in the service of outside powers.
Their reward has invariably been betrayal. They were betrayed twice by their
current ally, the US: in 1975, when Washington withdrew its support for Mullah
Mustafa Barzani's rebellion in order to facilitate a rapprochement between Iraq
and Iran, and again in 1991, when President George Bush Snr failed to come to
their aid after urging them to revolt.
They were betrayed by the world powers that carved up the carcass of the Ottoman
Empire after the first world war and betrayed by the Turks they had fought for
when the new state of Turkey went back on its word to create a bi-national state
in Anatolia. A promise of statehood, enshrined in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, was
betrayed by the world powers that sought to foster their own interests in the
In a society in which the tribe was traditionally above the state in the
hierarchy of loyalties, tribalism and tribal conflict have had an often divisive
impact on the nationalist struggle. At other times, however, the tribes have
helped to preserve the Kurdish nation from those who sought to destroy it. "The
tribes have become more important," says Farhan Sharafani, agha of the Sharafani
tribe, contemplating the challenges of a post-Saddam Iraq. "In times of crisis,
people want to stay close to their own."
In the past 12 years a Kurdish quasi- state has evolved in northern Iraq under
the protection of the allied no-fly zone. Exiles have returned home, armed not
with Kalashnikovs but with money, degrees, contacts and international expertise.
While the rest of Iraq sank deeper into the dictatorial darkness of the
Ba'athist regime, Iraqi Kurdistan began to thrive.
Sensing that, for once, history is on their side, the Kurds have now seized the
unexpected opportunity of an active alliance with the US to try to guarantee the
survival of their new-found autonomy.
So used are the Kurds to being cheated by history that many cannot believe their
new-found fortune will last. Things have always gone against them in the past,
so why not now? The Turks will invade. The Americans will abandon them. These
are concerns expressed by ordinary Iraqi Kurds.
An easier option for the Kurds would have been to bow to the verdict of history
and accept the assimilation that their more powerful neighbours tried to thrust
upon them. It never happened. Their language has survived attempts to stamp it
out, their culture has overcome attempts to eradicate it, their sense of
otherness is undimmed.
In 1880, Sheikh Ubaidullah of Shamdinan wrote, in an unsuccessful appeal for
British support for his revolt against the Ottoman empire: "The Kurdish nation
is a nation apart. Its religion is different from that of others, also its laws
In the classical era, Kurdish power spread into Anatolia and the Persian plateau
before succumbing to Rome in the west and the Sassanian empire in the east. It
was a pattern of defeat and division that was to be repeated throughout Kurdish
With the coming of Islam, which they were slow to adopt, Kurds rose to
prominence in a culture that put religious and tribal affiliation above that of
ethnicity. Their first contact with the Muslim armies was in 637, when the Arab
invaders captured Tikrit on the fringes of Kurdish territory. They fought on the
side of the Zoroastrian Persians but failed to prevent the Muslims gaining a
foothold in Kurdistan in 643, when the Kurdish armies were defeated in what is
now the Iraqi province of Suleimaniya.
The early Middle Ages saw the establishment of powerful independent
principalities and dynasties. Among the earliest and most glorious were those of
the Chaddadites, founded in 951 by Mohamed Chadda ben Kartan of the Rawadi
tribe, and the Merwanids, founded by Kurd Bad, a former shepherd turned warrior
The Rawadi tribe produced Saladin, who recovered Jerusalem from the Christian
crusaders and became sultan of the Abbuyid dynasty that ruled the Levant, Arabia
and Egypt. Like the 18th Kurdish Shah of Persia, the liberalising Kerim Khan
Zand, he ruled over a foreign and not a Kurdish empire.
It was the fate of the Kurds to fight and even rule in the service of others and
to live on the battlefield between emerging and more centralised imperial
powers. The decline of the Kurdish golden age began even before the era of
Saladin. In 1055, the Seljuk Turks entered Baghdad and seized control of the
caliphate before moving north to confront the Byzantines. They defeated the
Emperor Romanos IV at the battle of Malazgird in 1071 and went on to occupy most
of Asia Minor.
The Turkish newcomers took the precaution of suppressing the independent Kurdish
Merwanid principality that guarded the route to Persia. The Merwanids were
defeated in 1085 and henceforth, for almost nine centuries, the western Kurds
became vassals of the Turks.
The battle of Chaldiran in 1514, in which Kurds fought on both sides, fixed the
frontier between the Ottoman and Persian empires and was the signal for both to
launch a scorched-earth campaign against Kurdistan, waged with the latest weapon
of mass destruction - artillery.
The oppression prompted the birth of Kurdish nationalism, one that long predated
the modern nationalisms that were to prevail over the Kurds four centuries
These nationalist stirrings were brutally repressed. By the end of the 19th
century, the Ottoman and Persian empires had eradicated the last of the
autonomous Kurdish principalities. Kurdish nationalism was too weak to grab its
share of the post-first world war spoils. The divided land of the Kurds entered
an era of isolation, under-development and decline that has broadly endured
This ancient nation may now be on the brink of a renaissance or courting a new
disaster. Although they aspire emotionally to statehood - "It's the absolute
right of every people," said one new returnee - they recognise that a Kurdish
state will not be part of any post-war settlement.
The pragmatic wish of the 4m Iraqi Kurds is to maintain their autonomy within
the context of a democratic, federal state. But this will not affect the status
of the Kurds of Turkey, home to more than half of all Kurds, or those of Syria
and Iran. The emergence of a thriving autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan may serve as an
inspiration to other Kurds but, if so, the reaction of the states that they
inhabit is likely to be hostile.
The Kurds of Iraq feel they have earned their dues by coming to the rescue of
the US after it was let down by its Turkish ally. Their 60,000 regular forces
served as America's foot soldiers on the northern front, helping to tie down
half of Saddam Hussein's army.
They expect Washington to pay them back by supporting the establishment of a
federal democracy that will recognise their autonomy. Their history shows,
however, that supporting powerful allies has rarely reaped rewards.
Whatever happens in the future, the Kurds are unlikely to give up the struggle.
As a Kurdish proverb says: "Fighting is better than idleness."
Harvey Morris is the FT bureau chief in Jerusalem and co-author or 'No Friends
But The Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds'
Copyright 2003 The Financial Times Limited; Financial Times (London); April 19,
2003, Saturday London Edition 1;